In one of the most impressive debuts of the year, Ru Freeman delivers an epic, searing novel about betrayal and salvation, the strength of the human spirit, and the boundlessness and limits of love. Set against the volatile events of the last forty years of Sri Lankan history, A Disobedient Girl traces the lives of three characters whose interwoven fates and histories force them to answer life’s most difficult questions. Beautiful, haunting, alive, and brimming with truth, it is, above all, a novel about extraordinary circumstances that change life in an instant and the power of love to transcend time and place. The story begins with two little girls, mistress and servant, one with every luxury and opportunity that money can buy and the other with nothing but her yearning for a better life. Together, they grow up bound by love, betrayal, resentment, and an impossible secret. Then there is Biso, a devoted mother of three, who risks everything to escape from the hands of her tyrannical husband. But her journey, which begins with such hope, takes her on a disastrous path that ultimately leads her to give her life over to strangers she never imagined she would have reason to know, binding her story with that of the girls in the most unexpected and heartbreaking of ways. A Disobedient Girl is a compelling exploration of personal desire set against the volatile backdrop of class and prejudice, as three women journey toward their future, united by a shared history but separated by different fates. A bold and deeply moving account that spans three decades of love and loss, it is a tale about the will to survive and the incredible power of the human spirit to transcend the unforgiving sweep of tragedy.
She loved fine things and she had no doubt that she deserved them. That is why it had not felt like stealing when she’d helped herself to one of the oval cakes that were stacked in the cabinet underneath the bathroom sink in the main house. Who would care if one went missing from the seven sitting there, awaiting their turn in the rectangular ceramic soap dish bought at Lanka Tiles to match the new pale green bathroom towels? And, since she had been right and nobody had noticed, it was now a reliable source of luxury. When one wore out, which it didn’t for several months, she simply fetched herself another. …
A Conversation with Ru Freeman
1. A Disobedient Girl is your first published novel, though you’ve published short stories before. How does the process of writing a novel differ from that of writing a short story? What was it like to spend so much time with just one group of characters?
Short stories deal, usually, with a discrete moment and expand or contract to strengthen that particular moment. I can see the margins of a short story; it is like those word games where some of the letters are removed and parts of others brushed off but the brain still reads the intended word. Writing a short story is, therefore, a matter of putting in those missing letters and lines and it is instantly fulfilling no matter how much revision awaits. With a novel there is so much layering going on that throughout a first draft the story is never clear to me, but rather one that is being related to me. It is like what happens when I am reading a good book–a sort of craving of the next word, the next paragraph, the next page, the next event. It is not a particularly restful dwelling place for the mind or spirit. I love both forms, though, and there is ample space in literature for both.
As for spending time with them, I felt that I was writing two novels at the same time with Biso and Latha, who are very different people, in separate times, and living with circumstances particular to each of them. When I finished one chapter, I would have to get into a completely different mind-set in order to write the other. Often I would feel a great pull to avoid one of them and keep writing the other, but I’d force myself to continue with the story (i.e., the chapter that had to come next), because it helped to give them equal time. No matter what was going on in Latha’s life, it was usually easier and even uplifting to get back into her head. I didn’t know what was going to happen to Biso, but I knew whatever was coming was bad, which would invariably alter my own mood. I like observing them now, on the page, seeing what it is they have done.
2. You identify yourself as an “author and activist” on your website (www.rufreeman.com). Do you feel that these roles are very different? In what ways do these roles intersect with each other, or with other roles in your life?
Writers are solitary people who are, nonetheless, very deeply affected by external stimuli. Whereas a nonwriter could hear a bit of news and go back to their work, I think writers absorb it at a deeper level and find it hard to let it go, which probably explains why most of us really need time alone at colonies and residencies or a locked room out of our natural habitat in order to create. However, I also think that writers, because of our ease with words, have a significant role to play in political life; contributing to the humanitarian debates of our time should be part of our work. I am very involved with matters of social justice, because that is how I grew up. My family was and is constantly involved in political work, by profession, through personal commitments, or through writing. So I don’t really give more weight to one aspect of my life (the creative) over the other (the political work). They run side by side. I don’t feel the thinking behind these two roles that I have embraced differs in any great respect; only the form of the work itself.
3. Your novel gives readers insight into traditional Sri Lankan culture as well as the more modern lifestyle that is emerging due to urban development, Western exposure, and shifting political alignments. What personal experiences led you to portray these traditions and activities in the way that you have?
There is a fact mentioned in the book, about everybody having to wear blue, which is from my childhood; I remember counting how many times I saw that fabric between my home and my grandmother’s home. And so it was with the lack of luxury goods and so forth. My mention of that upset my father, who was responsible for advising and implementing the nationalism of the Bandaranaike government at the Ministry of Industries. Of course, I support those policies in theory and, in retrospect, celebrated the fact that the country thrived as a whole during that time, a fact even acknowledged by the IMF. But I also knew, as a little girl, how much I yearned for colorful things! I wanted uniforms made of fabric that would stay smooth; I wanted chocolates, and to see pretty things in the shop windows. I read about cheese and longed to taste it. So that was the voice that was speaking through Biso.
There’s other stuff, like the Christmas hamper that arrived at the Vithanages’, that came from my own life; industrialists were constantly trying to bribe my father and he would send every single one of those hampers back. But this one was the first one that came, and my brothers and I were so excited to see such wonderful things that we opened it up and ate one of the slabs of chocolate. We just couldn’t help ourselves.
I grew up in Sri Lanka and did not come to the United States until I left for college. I went back to live and do my graduate studies there and continue to visit whenever possible for extended periods of time. I am therefore keenly aware of the way things have stayed the same and the ways that they have changed. I see the country of my birth both with the eyes of the native and with those of the foreigner. I also view the rest of the world as a Sri Lankan born in Sri Lanka and as an American. Given that perspective and my political work and point of view, it is terribly disheartening for me to see Sri Lankans abandoning local Sunday markets full of leafy greens for air-conditioned megastores with shriveled and expensive root vegetables. It is distressing to see young people who think that aping an American fashion or swagger sets them apart, but most of all I find myself stupefied by the billboards with blonde-haired, blue-eyed people; it shows such lack of caring on the part of the foreign-based seller and implies such a lack of self-worth on the part of the Sri Lankan buyer and I know that the latter, at least, is not a fact, so it is a real blotch on the physical and social landscape.
4. Families–for better and worse, in all their shapes and sizes–really come to life in this novel. Were any of these characters, and their relationships with each other, inspired by your own family?
Well, everything comes down to one’s own family, doesn’t it? I did find my parents and brothers and myself seeping into the book, not as single characters but as fragments of various and sometimes multiple people. Biso’s constant desire to reclaim a “good” past was definitely something that I took from my mother’s way of looking at the world, in which her upper-caste childhood was relatively blissful compared to the harsh realities of Colombo city life. And Raji (Biso’s son) has elements of one my brothers, down to the way his hair stands on end. The men were also variously influenced by my father and brothers, as well as other Sri Lankan boys who were friends. But none of these people was entirely embodied in any of the characters. They influenced the writing to a great extent, but the characters in the novel are themselves.
5. Do you ever write in your native language? If so, how does the process differ from writing in English? Do you find that you are writing for different audiences, or are you always writing for the same people, but just using different vocabularies? How universal do you think your stories are?
I am, alas, not as fluent in my native language as I am in English. What I find myself doing, however, is writing in English what I might think in Sinhala, and writing the world from a very Sri Lankan interiority, which, in turn, influences my choice of words.
I write for a particular audience when I write my political pieces, which means that when I am writing fiction, I am truly free of imagining an audience, at least at the point of getting the first draft done. I might amend things along the way afterward for an audience that is not familiar with Sri Lanka, if I am writing a story set there–in this book, for instance, I go to some lengths to explain what clutching a knife with one’s toes actually means–but not while I am writing.
I also write about whatever place I am in. One of my first published poems was about a fellow student, an Australian, who committed suicide (on a trip to America, no less) while I was in school in Australia. I think an immigrant will always write about more than one place because to write about one place is to sort of claim that as a permanent home, and that is a very tricky concession for someone like me.Â There are certain short stories that I have written that I think are particularly well suited to a Sri Lankan audience, or a South Asian one, and others that are very specifically American. The themes that I have chosen to focus on in this book, however–the ties that bind women together; the way that men influence, fray, and sometimes break those bonds; the impact of hierarchies and emotional bondage on the human spirit; the desires of any person, no matter how small or large their lives–these things are universal. I am particularly heartened by the fact that a large publishing house would take on a relatively quiet book like this one, because it tells me that we are getting to a point where people, wherever they are, can hear and understand stories that come from very far and very foreign places and recognize a common humanity.
6. You’ve published your work internationally. How have the Eastern and Western literary worlds each received your work? How do you think the more political nature of A Disobedient Girl will influence the way in which audiences in both your native country and your adopted one perceive it?
Well, the strongest critics of the political aspects of the book, the language and the culture–on both sides of the pond–are my father, my mother, and my brother the journalist, respectively. If I can weather that I can weather anything!Â In terms of other kinds of criticism, there will be someone who will say that the book should explain the politics more, or that it should cover this or that part of Sri Lankan history, or that, because of my political activism, I should write a political book whatever that is. I don’t feel that the political background to a story should be explained. It is an aspect of fiction, not the fiction itself, after all. When Sri Lankans pick up To Kill A Mockingbird, and they do, they don’t expect to have a treatise inserted into the text of the book explaining the historical context of race relations in the United States, and so it should be with fiction from any other country in the world. The particular joy to me, of reading, is having interest piqued by something I find within the pages of a story and wanting to find out more for myself.Â As far as Sri Lankan critics are concerned, I think that the question that will be asked is whether a girl of Latha’s circumstances can have the experiences she does. I think that we are so used, as Sri Lankans, to shutting out the personalities and possible life of the mind and body in the people who work as servants for us, that we assume they must have no such life, no desires. This book is a way for me to find out what that life might actually look like if I were to give one such life–Latha’s–the air to breathe.Â In general, there is an audience for my political writing that is sympathetic to my point of view. The harshest critics of my recent writing on Sri Lanka were pro-LTTE individuals around the world. Once I write an article, no matter where it is published, I don’t respond to what people say afterward. It’s a waste of time.
7. The political unrest of Sri Lanka during the latter half of the twentieth century serves as a backdrop to your novel. Yet your characters are only peripherally affected by the turmoil of their country, hearing about uprisings but never really getting involved. Biso perhaps comes closest via her affair with Siri, who is an activist, and her near escape from the bomb on her train. Why did you choose to keep the political situation somewhat removed from the main arc of the story? Do violent political conflicts typically influence the lives of ordinary Sri Lankan families?Â Violent events do impact people in Sri Lanka, as in every other place, constantly, but servants–particularly young orphaned ones, like Latha was when some of the most tragic events occurred–learn to take their cues from the people for whom they work. Their world and therefore their wars are found within that domestic arena. To write at length about the actual nature of those political events would have meant disengaging from the voice and truth of the narrator in her story, and taking on some other pontificating tone that would have rung false and ruined the story.Â In Biso’s case, she was a mother of three who was seeking an affirmation of her womanhood and the vision she had of herself. Siri provided that for her with his political work, and she was happy to join him and experience the excitement of his dreams and his inclusion in the exalted circles of the university, but what she loved was how his passion for that work reflected the hopefulness in her heart for clean slates and new beginnings. It would have been easy to go into the why and wherefores of Siri’s activities, but this was not his story, it was hers, and I was quite determined to keep it that way.
Activism is usually the privilege of the privileged (class, gender) and the inevitable recourse of the doomed. For human beings, particularly mothers, who hang suspended between survival, duty, and desire, there isn’t a lot of room for the glamour of parades and protests. Writing a novel like this one, where political events are in the background, is not a reflection of a desire to sideline those issues, but a choice intended to highlight the way in which our preoccupations with those issues may not mean the same thing to, say, a servant like Latha or an abused woman like Biso. So it is still the statement of the activist in me, just differently phrased.
8. What aspects of being an American woman do you most enjoy? What aspects do you find most difficult? How would you compare your life here to the life you lived growing up in Sri Lanka or, later, as a student in Australia? Have you ever found it difficult to identify yourself as a Sri Lankan woman, or to identify with a South Asian perspective?
One of the things that I liked most when I first arrived was being able to read books written by living authors. I was so accustomed to studying classics and works of fiction and poetry as well as texts by the long-ago dead. It was very exhilarating to think that these authors and I were both alive at the same time; it gave me a great deal of confidence to breathe the same air. Of course, now I go back to the classics, as people inevitably do as they grow older, I suppose.Â I enjoy being able to participate with my own voice in American political life. It is easy to be independent here, whereas back home I am always my parents’ daughter, my brothers’ sister; everybody is known by family and association. I lived in Australia because my father was doing his graduate work, so even there I was his daughter. America is the first place where I got to do whatever I wanted without having to consider my entire family and all our various responsibilities and feuds and allegiances and so forth. It was a wide-open space for me, a very blank page, and I think I really liked the person I became as a result. It is hard not to love and want to write about a place that allows that to happen, no matter how conflicted one’s allegiances are.
I cherish the ability to translate these two countries back and forth. I write regularly for the papers there, and it enables me to speak, as an American, about American domestic and foreign policies; in a time when the United States was not very popular, it was particularly important to be able to communicate what ordinary Americans might actually be thinking and doing. Likewise, when the tsunami hit Sri Lanka, I was able to travel around the country here and talk to them about Sri Lanka, responding to the things that Americans are interested in knowing: Sri Lanka’s ecumenical traditions, education, cultural specificities, language, and so forth.
I have three daughters of my own, and I am constantly amazed at how luxurious their lives are compared to my own childhood, but it is more a case of my wishing I could simplify their spaces rather than any kind of regret that my life there was different. My oldest daughter lived in Sri Lanka for a couple of years and the others also visit for extended periods of time, and when they are there, their imaginations seem particularly alive; they can make up complex games with a garden hose and a rickety mailbox that barely locks, or even the streaks of sunlight that fall across my parents’ verandah. It reminds me that there is no greater toy than a creative mind.
Truthfully, I think what I enjoy most is being a Sri Lankan—born woman living in America. There is no escape from either of those citizenships, nor do I really want to be relieved of one or the other; it is comforting to have a mental getaway chariot to carry me away from the inevitable problems found in each of these countries!
9. The intricacies of the caste system, familiar to Americans as a part of life in countries like India and Sri Lanka, can sometimes seem bizarre and even cruel to those unused to them. Do you find value in this system? Why do you think it persists? How would you compare it to the less defined, but still present, class systems of America?
Well, the caste system in Sri Lanka is not really that different from the pervasive social systems that exist in America to persuade people to follow the business of their parents. The pioneers of the West, the farmers of the Midwest, the fishing families of New England, or, more specifically, the oilmen of Texas, the bankers of New York, the government servants of Washington, D.C., and so on, belong, usually, to generations who have gone into the same line of work. Similarly, in Sri Lanka, caste is actually a definition of trade: fisher-folk (Kara), laundrymen (Dhobi), farmers (Govi), and so forth.
It is also distinct from the Indian caste system, which is what most people are familiar with. For one thing, caste, at least among Sinhala Buddhists, lacks the religious foundation that supports it in Hindu India. Also, unlike the Hindu Indian caste system, which takes the form of a familiar pyramid of status, with the more privileged caste being the smallest, among Sinhala Buddhist Sri Lankans the pyramid is inverted–the most privileged caste is by far the largest, encompassing more than half the Sinhala Buddhist population.Â There is great pride in most of these Sri Lankan families in the traditional work that they have done and there is an intricate interweaving of dependency on the part of the people who come from different castes, where each one recognizes that it is not possible to survive without the other. The differences between the castes are used, most often, to cast an aspersion on the character of a prospective in-law or to doubt the capability of a worker, and these examples are illustrative of the speaker’s ignorance more than of the victim’s integrity. This kind of slur is more common among an older generation than in mine. Caste lacks a firm economic basis in Sri Lanka because wealth can be accrued by people of different castes, particularly since there is a system of free education in Sri Lanka from kindergarten through college, and national exams are weighted to give special consideration to students from poorer, less well supplied schools, and opportunities, through those schools, to enter local universities or apply for foreign scholarships.
Here in the United States, by comparison, class is much less permeable, no matter how hard we try to pretend otherwise. It is usually the poor who are recruited for the military (at last count, there were only four members of Congress with children in the military); blue-collar work usually remains the lot of children born into blue-collar families; children of parents who do not go to college usually follow that same trajectory; and it is very hard to shake off the mantle of poverty or intellectual deprivation. As a case in point, I live on the Main Line in Philadelphia, and our township is about to undertake a $11.1 million renovation on one of its finest libraries (within a system ranked among the top twenty in the nation), and rebuilding its two (nationally top ranking) public high schools while across the street, the public libraries in Philadelphia are shutting down and its public schools are in disarray.Â There is, I think, a long way to go for people in both countries to overcome the disparities of status that are created by our mental labels for other people, and even further to go in terms of overcoming the disparities of opportunity that are held in place by our denial of the existence of injustice.
10. How do you think your background–with roots both in the West and in Sri Lanka–influences your perspective on the challenges of modern Sri Lankan women (or their counterparts in neighboring countries, such as India) like Latha and Thara? Do you think your opinion differs significantly from that of women of your generation who were born and raised solely in Sri Lanka?
I am not exactly representative of a typical Sri Lankan woman in terms of the privileges I had growing up. Among that group of women, who grew up in Colombo in highly educated families and attended private schools and had opportunities to travel, my generation is closer to my way of thinking than they are to their parents’. Many of my high school friends married outside their social status or caste, and several of them married foreigners. Sri Lankan women have always been raised to be strong and intelligent and encouraged to pursue independent careers. There is a heavy emphasis on education throughout the culture, and that emphasis applies to both genders. There is a lot of respect for women and their work both within and outside the home, and no barriers to any field of study, profession or pursuit, for the most part. If you look at the big picture, however, there are disparities. For example, Sri Lankan women earn only 81 percent of the same salary of their male counterparts in manufacturing which, though better than American women, who earn 76.5 percent compared to American men for the same work, is still a problem.Â Like women everywhere, the burden of homemaking falls heavily on women, and in many ways Sri Lankan women assume that burden silently. A couple who start out with the identical intelligence and passion for civic life will still fall into the pattern of the male half continuing to pursue those interests at the same pace after the arrival of children, whereas a woman would be judged harshly for doing so. In an American context, that woman would be much freer to find outlets for herself through her work and personal life; that is much more difficult in Sri Lanka, where, along with enormous respect for women comes a sort of deification of motherhood with all its attendant expectations; it can be quite crippling.
As in most cases, though, such rules are most strictly applied not to the very poor or the very rich, but to the upwardly mobile middle class. Poor women like Latha and Biso are much less constrained by what people might think of them, and there is less expected of them. Latha, once she breaks out of the grip of the Vithanages, and with the money she has accumulated, is relatively free to forge a life of her own. A very wealthy person in Sri Lanka can have children out of wedlock and not be affected by pubic censure. But for Thara, who is neither poor nor very rich, life is very much a case of having to obey the unwritten codes of conduct that govern social life.
11. Foreigners make brief appearances in the novel, but their impact is great. What is the significance of the ways in which foreign characters (in this novel, all men) treat the Sri Lankan characters? Is this rooted in a personal or common experience?
Obviously there are numerous foreigners in Sri Lanka who aren’t quite as villainous as the ones who abducted the children nor even as base as Daniel. However, there was a major case in Sri Lanka when I was last living there, sometime between 1996 and 1998, when a group of tourists were arrested for engaging in child pornography, particularly with young boys. It was very significant because most of the time it is hard to prosecute such cases. It is also something that is a problem along certain parts of the southern coast. I wrote several short stories about that issue, so it has been on my mind, and that was how it became a part of the plot line in the novel. There is certainly evidence to support the fact that some foreign visitors to countries like Sri Lanka imagine that poverty or apparent destitution loosens the bonds that people have to their children, or that they are relieving them of “burdens,” when nothing could be further from the truth.
As far as Daniel is concerned, I worked for an American organization in Sri Lanka when I was in graduate school there and it gave me a window into that particular world of white-collar expatriate workers, particularly those who mean well but do not always do right. I was also familiar with the ways in which they aren’t always able to tell people from different classes apart, specially when they are new in the country, and it would stand to reason that someone like that would find Latha’s sort of confidence appealing, and also be able to pretend not to know what he was doing after he had slipped into the comfortable routine he got into with her.
12. Of all the characters in A Disobedient Girl, with whom do you most identify, and why?
I identify very strongly both with Thara (who in life vis-Ã -vis the real Latha who came to work at my grandmother’s house was my real counterpart) and with Latha (who felt to me like the girl I was, constantly under pressure but irrepressible). As a girl I was always fascinated by the real Latha, wanting to literally trade places with her and go home to her family, who all slept, safely, in one room, bundled together. She was fearless and free–from my point of view–untrammeled by the expectations and problems that beset me. I was impressed by her and she was the only girl, exactly my own age, with whom I had a close, personal relationship, with whom I did not have to be guarded or self-conscious as I was with my girl friends at school.Â But I also knew, obviously, what it was to be the mistress of the house, because I had that title. I recall quite vividly being addressed by one of the tenant farmers on my grandmother’s land as “little mistress” when I was still relatively young, and being asked by him not to forget to look after him when I took over the lands someday (even though that was not my lot in life). So I did feel sympathy for Thara, too, in her inability to completely give in to her affection for Latha.
13. You depict with such sensitivity the complicated relationships between people of various castes, regions, sexes, and age groups–all while painting a brilliant, exotic, and yet strangely familiar portrait of Sri Lanka. What would you most like American readers to understand about your native country after reading A Disobedient Girl?
What I want people to understand is that my country is more than a beautiful tourist destination, or a country ravaged by political upheavals and, until recently, by terrorism, or a strange locale mentioned on the news. Rather, it’s a place where human beings just like themselves pick up the cards they are dealt and do the best they can. I would like them to see that my native country, like my adopted country or any other country, can be touched and accessed and understood by anybody, so long as we are willing to recognize that the things that move us, as women, mothers, human beings, are the same no matter where we are born.